The old adagio of “Italians do it better” does not pertain to romance alone. Neorealism, also known as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, is still remembered in the history of motion pictures as one of the most important and influential film movements of all time.
The way the boot-shaped land was portrayed on film, traversing the economic and moral difficulties of a post-World War II world, has become legendary. Whether the performances were done by non-professional actors or divas – such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Anna Magnani, and Silvana Mangano – these films were trendsetters for cinema around the world. The French Nouvelle Vague, the Polish Film School, India’s Parallel Cinema, and several other styles would have never come about had it not been for the Neorealistic period in Italy.
Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Federico Fellini’s La Strada, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, have all proven that there was a time when Italians were capable of “doing” better movies.
But by the end of the 1970s, and towards the beginning of the ‘80s, Italy hit a crisis in the film industry that would last until the end of the century. The era of important producers like Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis working in Hollywood came to an end, and the Italian government subsidies for cinema were drastically cut. This opened a new chapter in the country’s way of making films.
A tabula rasa was presented where Italy was forced to rewrite its cinematic history again from scratch. In this phase of reinvention, the land of La Dolce Vita and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has managed to once more crank-out some remarkable films while bringing light to a new generation of exceptional directors.
Here are a few that you may already know:
Giuseppe Tornatore likely stands as the precursor to Italy’s comeback in the international scene since his Nuovo Cinema Paradiso won Italy an Oscar in 1989. The Italian director later explored the French world with A Pure Formality, starring Roman Polanski and Gerard Depardieu, before conquering Hollywood’s financial endorsement for movies such as The Legend of 1900 and Malena.
Tornatore made a variety of films set in his beloved homeland, the most epic of which is Baaria; this film pays tribute to the Sicilian hometown of the director, Bagheria. Most recently his films explore a wider European setting, such as the romantic mystery film The Best Offer. Indeed, that picture stars an international cast that includes Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, and Donald Sutherland. He also has an upcoming English language movie that has been shot in Italy, Scotland, and England. This film, The Correspondence, stars Jeremy Irons and Olga Kurylenko, and is the coming-of-age story of a PhD student who works as a stuntwoman while reconciling past and present through a love story with an older astrophysics professor.
That film will be released in 2016 but it seems like we will have to keep our eyes on Tornatore heading east, since he expressed strong interest in Sino-films at the China Film Forum that took place during the 72nd Venice International Film Festival.
Paolo Sorrentino is the most acclaimed and beloved Italian director today, who has managed to conquer audiences worldwide with a majestic Fellini-esque use of the camera in his socially critical narratives. His The Great Beauty brought Italy an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for the first time in 15 years. Sorrentino had also already captured the attention of sophisticated audiences with The Consequences of Love, Il Divo, and his first Hollywood movie starring Sean Penn and Frances McDormand, This Must Be The Place. Following his Oscar winning effort, many wondered if his next effort would live up to its lofty expectations. But Youth proved to be another gem worthy of the maestro, exploring the melancholic charm of old age while elegantly intertwining it with the power of music and through the exceptional performances of Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Jane Fonda.
The Roman director Matteo Garrone began presenting the dark side of Italian realities on the silver screen with socially relevant movies such as The Embalmer, Gomorrah, and Reality. He revealed a profound understanding of how people struggle to relate to each other on an emotional level, as well as portraying the dark and disquieting themes of the Camorra (the Neapolitan Mafia), and the mind-warping phenomenon of reality television.
His leap to Hollywood occurred this year with an outrageously dark depiction of fairy tales, and through an adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti (a 17th century Neapolitan collection of highly influential fairy tales). His adaptation, Tale of Tales, tarred Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, and Stacy Martin, and is a fantastic endeavor that marks Garrone’s first English-language movie. It has wowed audiences and sets Garrone up for the Hollywood track.
Marco Bellocchio is one of Italy’s most intrepid film directors and he explores society with an attentive, visionary eye. His films capture humanity through oneiric realism. As a result, and during his 50-year career, Bellocchio has enjoyed a wide range of genres and subjects that have conquered worldwide audiences. If you look at any of his movies, such as My Mother’s Smile (2002), Good Morning, Night (2003), The Wedding Director (2006), or his latest effort that played at the Venice Film Festival, Blood of My Blood, you’ll realize his filmography belongs to no specific structure.
He has always kept his work Italian in the stories, in the settings, and in the language, despite the themes obviously have a universal range. But even with this sole-Italian-focus, his work has captured the attention of worldwide audiences, up to the point that the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a retrospective of Bellocchio’s cinematic productions in 2014 as a testimony of how influential and all-inclusive his Italian filmmaking tends to be.
NanniMoretti is also a film director who has never ventured to tell stories set beyond his country’s border. In some cases, some of his movies have not stepped beyond his doorstep threshold since they present very autobiographic moments of his life. But the common thread of his fictional pieces, drenched with social mockery, is the theme of inadequacy.
This is evident his earliest I am Self Sufficient (1976), Ecce Bombo (1978), Sogni d’oro (1981), Bianca (1984), and Red Lob (1989), where his protagonist is Michele Apicella. Technically it’s a different character in each film, but they all share the same common features and name: he is constantly someone with a strong moral and intellectual intransigence of non-conformism, who rejects the idea of belonging.
In April (1998) and The Son’s Room (2001), the actor-director mixes fiction and documentary to further investigate the theme of inadequacy as felt by grown men, parents, and most even in sons. In that latest effort, My Mother, Moretti received cheers at Cannes earlier this year. In this film, Moretti’s self-portrayal comes full circle and assigns his alter-ego to a woman. Margherita Buy expresses his intimate journey as an inadequate child attempting to assist his dying parent.
Inadequacy in Nanni Moretti’s filmography has also expanded in the field of political ineptness: The Caiman exemplifies the Silvio Berlusconi era. We Have a Pope, meanwhile, foretold the early retirement of a Pontiff who felt inapt for the role. No matter the film, Nanni Moretti’s witty dissection of society has been praised internationally.
The director who conquered Will Smith’s attention with his Italian movies The Last Kissand Remember Me, My Love began his Hollywood venture in 2006 with The Pursuit of Happyness. This fellowship with Smith also continued in the making of Seven Pounds, which reinforced Gabriele Muccino’s presence in the American film industry. And despite his Playing for Keeps rom-com with Gerard Butler and Jessica Biel flopping, Muccino returns this year with a grand movie on how parental love can influence our adult relationships. Fathers and Daughters with Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Octavia Spencer, and Jane Fonda, explores impetuously the fear of loving, when we are haunted by childhood delusions.
Although film remains a central creative pursuit, Luca Guadagnino’s curiosity has made him take on collaborations in a diverse selection of artistic disciplines, including early work in the luxury sector, producing a number of fashion films, developing video and print advertising, and staging several high profile creative events. The movie that gave him global attention, however, was I Am Lovestarring Tilda Swinton. Guadagnino and Swinton have recently teamed again for his latest endeavor, A Bigger Splash, which was presented at the Venice Film Festival. That film also features a stellar cast with Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, and Dakota Johnson. When it comes to Luca Guadagnino, opinions are divided: you either hate or love his movies. But as someone once said, as long as they talk about him… he is still in the loop.
In conjunction with these “new” generation directors that are bringing Italy back to its movie stardom, we must acknowledge that some iconic filmmakers of the old guard who are still around:
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
These noted directors and screenwriters are brothers who have always worked together on Neorealistic documentaries that investigate social concerns. Father and Master won the Palme d’Or in 1977, and The Night of the Shooting Stars won the Grand Prix du Jury in 1982. Most recently, the Tavianis’ exceptional film about the rehearsals of a prison performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—Caesar Must Die—won the Golden Bear at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. This year, the veteran filmmakers brought Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron to the big screen (44 years after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation). Wondrous Boccacccio focuses on five of the 100 short stories included in the classic Italian masterpiece, as an invitation to experience the narrative charm of one of the greatest European storytellers of all time.
Last Tango in Paris, 1900, and The Last Emperor are just a few of the titles by Bernardo Bertolucci that made cinematic history. As grandchild of a revolutionary, the motion picture poet possesses a lineage of intellectual curiosity and radical politics that he channeled in blunt films about politics and sexuality. He has worked with some of the finest actors in the world, including Marlon Brando, Gerard Depardieu, and Robert De Niro, and his resume of achievements includes multiple Academy Award nominations and a Best Director statuette.
After his productions in the 1990s (such as The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, and Stealing Beauty), and 2003’s tribute to Paris in 1968 with The Dreamers, the existential-political director had to slow down his filmmaking because of a crippling back pain that confines him to a wheel chair. It took him almost 10 years before he got behind a camera again as a paraplegic director to shoot in 2012 the intimately metropolitan Me and You, which we hope won’t be his last tango.
Another legend in the history of film is Franco Zeffirelli, who was appointed for his outstanding movie career Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Grande Ufficiale OMRI of the Italian Republic. Despite also being a former senator of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, we like to remember Zeffirelli for his exceptional Shakespeare adaptations like the 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Zeffirelli has also been an outstanding opera metteur en scène (opera director) and was a good friend of opera soprano Maria Callas, with whom he worked during the production of La Traviata, Tosca, and Norma, and whom he paid tribute to in his 2002 movie Callas Forever; in that picture, Fanny Ardant played the Greek star of the stage.
The Florentine director is over 90-years-old and father of two adoptive sons, Pippo and Luciano. He is now engaged in his foundation, which will bequeath to the city of Florence all the sceneries, props, and costumes used on his sets. The Zeffirelli Foundation will become an Academy for future musicians, artists, and filmmakers.
Amidst the new talents and old sea dogs sailing across the ocean of international film, there are also those Italian directors who had their one shot to rise to stardom, but haven’t been able to keep the high standards… but still have time to get back in the game.
An excellent example of the “one-hit wonder”is Roberto Benigni who won an Oscar in 1999 with Life is Beautiful, but failed audiences with his following films Pinocchio and The Tiger and The Snow. Equally thwarted has been actor Sergio Castellito, known for working also behind the camera. Castellitto tried to gain international attention as a director by choosing Penelope Cruz as his star for both Don’t Move (which was screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section in 2004) and Twice Born (which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012). Nevertheless both movies got a lukewarm reaction from film critics.
On the other hand, someone who shows promise and was acclaimed at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival for the Italian adaptation of Stephen Amidon’s novel, The Human Capital, is Paolo Virzì. His movie version won Valeria Bruni Tedeschi the Best Actress Award at Tribeca and was chosen as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. Virzì’s stylistic evolution throughout his career – from Italian classic comedy style (Ovosodo) to social drama passing through period film (Napoleon and Me) – definitely makes him a director to keep your eyes on.